“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”
–Potter Stewart, Supreme Court Justice, 1958-1981
It is no secret that some very influential forces are at play in the gilded chamber of the Volusia County School Board.
During a recent discussion of whether to extend the contract of Superintendent Dr. Scott Fritz, We, The Little People who pay the bills and suffer in silence were treated to a ringside view of what happens when true power moves in Volusia County.
It began when two sitting members of the School Board – Carl Persis and Linda Cuthbert – pushed for a premature off-the-agenda vote to extend the Superintendent’s contract without any substantive analysis of his performance.
In backing Cuthbert’s play in seeking a vote, Mr. Persis said:
“I feel sorry for Dr. Fritz right now. He probably thought something was going to happen. It’s stressful,” Persis said. “I’d rather take the heat than go through this all over again, put him through this again, put everyone who came out tonight through this again.”
I found that strange. . .
As a member of the coveted $200K Club – that rare atmosphere where those making more than $200,000 a year in public funds understand and accept the professional volatility and uncertainty that comes with it – Dr. Fritz either knew, or should have known, that his performance would be open for discussion.
Interestingly, the move to keep Fritz at the helm was supported by some very heavy-hitters who spoke to board members from the podium – quickly followed by glowing letters from the heads of area colleges, universities, and the Daytona Beach Regional Chamber of Commerce – supported by other internal and external lobbying efforts.
Given the abject dysfunction and lack of any substantive communications strategy that has hamstrung the Fritz administration – a foundering ship that never found its compass during the pandemic when students, teachers, parents, and staff needed strong leadership the most – many have questioned the full-court-press to extend the Superintendent’s contract some eight-months ahead of its expiration in November.
The resultant confusion has caused many to speculate on the why of things.
Some wonder if keeping Dr. Fritz at the helm is to ensure funding for what they suspect may be a technology-based high school – possibly affiliated with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – something that might explain why the incredibly influential Forough Hosseini – the wife of Mortenza “Mori” Hosseini, who serves as Chairman of the ERAU Board of Trustees (and Chair of the University of Florida Board of Trustees) – has been such a vocal supporter of Dr. Fritz, recently calling him a “visionary.”
Other watchers contacted me with rumors that Ormond Beach City Commissioner Susan Persis – the wife of Volusia County School Board member Carl Persis – was granted a lucrative contract with Volusia County District Schools to provide “coaching” services to several area principals.
One concerned citizen suggested that in an environment where the district is facing massive budgetary shortfalls, difficulty securing pay increases, and hemorrhaging teachers, the quiet agreement with the wife of a sitting board member – who represents one of the five fingers on the hand which controls Dr. Fritz’ fate – represents Volusia County cronyism at its finest.
That raised my eyebrows.
So, I did some checking to satisfy my own morbid curiosity. . .
On March 16, 2020, Susan Summers Persis formed a Florida Limited Liability Corporation known as Summers Educational Coaching, LLC. According to SunBiz, the $160.00 filing fee was paid using a personal check from a Bank of America account listing Susan S. Persis and Carl G. Persis on its face.
On September 1, 2021, Susan Persis signed a Contracted Services Agreement with the School District of Volusia County (CS 22-031LS) – the binding contract was approved by Deputy Superintendent Carmen J. Balgobin on September 7, 2021, and signed by Superintendent Ronald Fritz on September 8, 2021 – with a retroactive effective date of August 16, 2021, terminating on June 30, 2022.
Among the scope of services, the agreement requires that Ms. Persis provide “…coaching and mentoring services to School Principals and Assistant Principals upon request by the Superintendent and/or the Deputy Superintendent…” The location of services is listed as Pathways Elementary, Sugar Mill Elementary, Horizon Elementary, and Holly Hill School.
The goals of the contract include coaching school principals to “…prioritize and accomplish sustainable target initiatives,” “guiding Principals to prioritize tasks,” “assisting Principals to become situational and instructional leaders,” “provide advice to Principals on how to effectively retain staff,” and some bureaucratic horseshit described as, “Provide Principals with comprehensive perspectives in a dynamic environment, while confronting new challenges daily.”
Under the terms, as a district contractor, Summers Educational Coaching is compensated at a rate of $82.00 per hour – not to exceed $23, 616.00 over the term of the agreement with services provided no longer than six-hours per day.
The contract specifies Dr. Carmen Balgobin as the administrator designated by Superintendent Fritz to coordinate “…all matters pertaining to this agreement and to authorize services, accept and approve all reports, drafts, products, or invoices for all services…”
The contract terms are within Dr. Fritz’ spending authorization – which means the agreement did not need to come before the School Board for public approval.
Pursuant to a formal public records request to Volusia County Schools, last week I learned that the following invoices have been paid to Summers Educational Coaching, LLC:
June 30, 2021 $1,025 (Before the effective date of the agreement)
September 18, 2021 $ 902
September 28, 2021 $ 738
October 1, 2021 $ 492
October 31, 2021 $ 820
November 15, 2021 $ 615
November 30, 2021 $ 738
December 15, 2021 $ 738
January 15, 2022 $ 902
January 31, 2022 $1,066
March 9, 2022 $ 615
In addition, I found it interesting that Susan Persis executed an Authentication of Proposal and Statement of Non-Collusion and Non-Conflict of Interest dated April 28, 2020 – which was apparently made part of the Contracted Services Agreement signed in September 2021.
Among other declarations, the agreement certifies that Ms. Persis, as a vendor, “…is legally entitled to enter into the contract with the School District of Volusia County and is not in violation of any prohibited conflict of interest, including those prohibited or any procurement regulation of the School District of Volusia County.”
Section five of that declaration states, “That the Vendor has fully disclosed with their response the name(s) of any officer, director, or agent who is or was an employee of the School Board of Volusia County, Florida.” However, that disclosure was not made part of the public records I received.
For the record, Volusia County District Schools did not provide any ‘work product’ of Summers Educational Coaching relative to my public records request – that does not mean none exists – but I did not receive any.
Look, I am not casting aspersions on Ms. Persis’ contract with Volusia County Schools – if she certifies that no conflict of interest or prohibited business relationship exists under the terms of Florida’s ethics laws or the procurement of regulations of Volusia County Schools – then I accept that.
As I understand it, by statute, School Districts are specifically exempt from Florida’s nepotism law – as are the Board of Governor’s of the State University System – and Ms. Persis has appropriately listed her company on required financial disclosure forms filed with the Supervisor of Elections.
Besides, I’m not an investigative journalist – I am just regurgitating information that is available to anyone who asks for it – and I damn sure am not the conscience of Volusia County District Schools.
But like Justice Stewart so eloquently said, “…knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do,” in my view, is the essence of personal and professional ethics.
In my experience, avoiding even the appearance of impropriety is omnipotent in public office – because any conduct perceived to impair the ability of an elected or appointed official to fulfill their important responsibilities with fairness, impartiality, objectivity, and integrity is detrimental to the public’s trust of the institution.
That is when – right or wrong – perceptions become reality for taxpayers who are routinely treated like mushrooms: Kept in the dark and fed bullshit. . .
This is especially true as controversy arises, such as when the School Board splits on whether to renew the Superintendent’s employment contract – especially when the wife of a board member has a lucrative contract with the same district overseen by the member – signed and authorized by that same Superintendent.
That is when suspicion increases as We, The Little People seek answers – especially when what we see with our own eyes does not comport with what we are being told by some very influential people – and confidence in the important processes of governance continues to erode.
According to a report by education reporter Nikki Ross in The Daytona Beach News-Journal this morning:
“Volusia County Schools Superintendent Scott Fritz has decided not to extend his contract, which he announced to staff in an email Monday morning.
“After much reflection, I have decided not to extend my contract,” Fritz said. “Serving VCS has been the greatest experience in my 30 years of public education. I would like to thank each of you for your dedication to our students and our school system.”
Fritz did not give a reason for his decision in the email. He did not immediately return calls for comment Monday.”